Everything You Know is Wrong!
For decades I’ve maintained a love/hate relationship with that rag of a capitalistic publication known as the Wall Street Journal. I first encountered the WSJ in high school, when my English lit teacher obtained trial subscriptions for the entire class, motivated by his idée fixe that the WSJ would serve as an exemplary resource for style and journalistic reference that would greatly benefit all us ignorant little sons and daughters of Central Valley agricultural laborers.
Our prof, Mr. English (no kidding, his name really was English and he really did teach English) was a transplanted bopster, a fairly recent arrival from the Greenwich Village area of New York, where he had been teaching after graduation from Columbia. In his threadbare seesucker sports jacket (with leather elbow patches), bowtie, and ‘Weejuns’ loafers, he perfectly fit the late 50s model of exactly what a modern, literate, and broadly educated hipster should look like. At least so he thought.
Despite his efforts to teach regular American English, his clipped speech was redolent with subtle clues to his socio-intellectual class (e.g. social class) aspirations. His favorite admonishment upon walking into the classroom each day was, invariably, “OK, kiddies, downsit yourselves and let’s crack some books.” He could as easily have said, “…bake some crack”, but as far as we knew his only substance preference was for weed (he called it tea). At any rate, Mr. English was far too cool for his faculty peers to get a good glimpse into his true disestablishmantarian interior, since most of the other teachers were about as hip as J. Edgar Hoover’s neutered Afghan Hound and this was late 50s California.
But I digress. Mr. English was convinced that the WSJ was exactly what we little chuckleheads needed to rise above the lazy writing norms that prevailed in the Valley. Frankly, I found it extremely dull stuff, not to mention insufferably tendentious and as dry as the summer-blasted wastes of nearby Death Valley.
At the time, the WSJ was so conservative in its tone and editorial outlook that the John Birch Society would likely have found it too far right of the economy’s center for their comfort. The WSJ was, after all, the chief central organ of greedy American entrepreneurial capitalism in much the same manner that PRAVDA spoke for the Soviet Communist Party’s politburo. From my adolescent perspective, however, the WSJ was only good for two things: 1) wrapping the remains of local slough-caught catfish before disposing of their inedible parts, and 2) tinder for fireplaces.
Thus I took great pains to avoid any further associations with the WSJ until I finally became an indentured white collar slave laborer for the California State Treasurer’s Office in the late 1990s, figuratively toting barges full of filthy lucre and lifting virtual bales of investment securities by the flood-prone banks of the Sacramento River. The irony of this fact is rife, since I have never been especially adept with figures (curvilinearity problems, apparently—with both the money and female types) and to this day I still can’t effectively balance my own checking account (since I handle the state’s $60 billion dollar ‘Pooled Money Investment Account' portfolio, you may be suspecting that I bear more than a bit of responsibility for the state’s present financial melt-down; perversely, I have no particular desire to disabuse you of that notion, as amusingly possible as it may be).
Shortly after I became a ‘T-Man’ for the state’s treasury, like it or not the Wall Street Journal reentered my life like a terrorist headed for the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, since I was now processing bazillions of greenbacks for the Great State of Californication and was required to refer to financial data contained therein. It was not exactly among my favored reading material, naturally, but as a result of my forced proximity to this philistine fountainhead of greedy acquisivity I began to actually read parts of it (after deftly managing to stonewall it for decades).
Subsequent to the present world-wide economic armageddon, the impact of that sea-change on American confidence in Wall Street (and everything associated with it) has clearly been reflected in the content of the Wall Street Journal. The paper no longer reeks of smug corporate cronyism generally, nor is it so gung-ho bullish ("Merrill Lynch is bullshit on America..."?) on every nuance of the economy that can be perceived as being the least bit speculative of extreme wealth. Further, the paper has softened its traditional ‘all business’ approach towards news slightly, as bits of the present ‘infotainment’ philosophy of journalism take greater hold on our society's journalists. Now we find articles of general interest in the WSJ that are occasionally only remotely associated with economic speculation, and features such as the Personal Journal, a section devoted to soft-core exploitation of social lifestyle trends impacting individuals (rather than masses of consumers) who read the WSJ. Although the editorializing found in the paper is still archly ultra-conservative (e.g. constant opinionised sniping against the Obama Administration, articles by Karl Rove defending his behind-the-scenes manipulations of the Bush Administration, scarcely subtle praise and support for Israel in its war against the Palestinians, and the unending, harsh putdown of beastly American liberalism, etc.), a few features may be nonetheless found appearing in it that have some strongly intrinsic social value largely unrelated to a definable or discernible political agenda.
One of the best of them is the Wall Street Journal book review (Bookshelf) that has become a regular, daily feature found toward the end of the main section. The first time I looked at the WSJ’s Bookshelf feature, I noted with both surprise and pleasure that its reviewers were not just admirably astute in their commentaries, they also seemed to consistently select very recently published books to discuss of timely import to a broad range of individuals given to reflective concern with American society.
Based on my own experience grazing the WSJ’s daily Bookshelf offerings, I’ve found dozens of very interesting and thoughtfully prepared works on just about every aspect of American life imaginable and many dealing with international subjects. Very recently, the cultural aesthete in me was amazed (and pleased) to note a review of Bertrand M. Patenaude’s Harper Brothers release of Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary. As someone who has always been fascinated by social upheaval, cultural movements, and other phenomena of social, political, economic, and/or philosophical relevance, I’ve always found the story of Trotsky’s Menshevik struggles against Bolshevism quite interesting. The fact that Trotsky was dispatched with a climber’s ice axe (the German term is eis pickel, thereby giving rise to endless erroneous speculation by the uninformed as to whether he was assassinated with a ‘ice pick’ or with an ice axe, a most unusual and sensational instrument with which to murder someone) simply adds to the interest, given my own past associations with mountaineering ice axes.
The WSJ Bookshelf review that most recently seized my interest is a cooperative endeavor by authors Bo Bronson and Ashley Merryman titled NurtureShock. The book is a compilation of the very latest findings on child development and, aside from my being quite interested in the subject on its own merits, I was one of the very first of the so-called baby-boomer generation kids whose whole lives were essentially shaped and influenced by the ‘expert opinion’ of pediatrics specialist Dr. Benjamin Spock. When Spook’s book was first released (in 1945), it generated waves of intense interest among parents (mostly mothers, of course, being the designated prime nurturers of that era). As the WSJ reviewer (Ms. Kay Hymowitz) notes, the reverence held by the general public for ‘experts’ in any field of interest was so intense that Spock’s personal take on child-raising literally became enshrined as parental holy writ.
Naturally enough, as the child of a bright single mother with a tendency to be an aesthete herself (but who had enough on her hands trying to earn a living for two of us, without having to try to figure out her own child’s behavioral changes), my own Ma embraced the good doctor’s advice fervently as she would that found in her Presbyterian bible. Dr. Spock’s title might as well have been Jesus H. Spock, the way she welcomed Spock into our collective lives. Unwittingly, I became one of the first virtual poster children for that pediatrician-turned-social-guru, sadly enough, and I am convinced today that Spock’s exhortative pontifications on child-raising are at least significantly responsible for my being the semi-neurotic, complex-laden person I have to come to know myself as being.
Sadly, it took decades to even begin to undo some of the damage that good old Ben Spock did to my generation; I’d venture to guess that many of us are still subconsciously motivated and influenced by the peculiar notions and theories Dr. Spock got into his head (and then ours), waking up uncomfortably dyspeptic some morning after having consumed a plate full of green chili peppers the night before. At any rate, years of subsequent research have demonstrated well enough since Spock’s bible on child-raising came out that parents would likely have done just as well understanding and raising their little problem children by listening more closely to the voices in their own heads and taking Spock’s opinions less to heart than they did. But as mentioned before, the 50s was the first decade of an age of ‘experts’ and the public couldn’t get enough of this sort of learned opinion (however bad it may have been conceived, formularized, and promulgated).
But I didn’t broach this subject to defame the good Doctor Bennie Spock, no matter how far out in left field his advice tended to lead us, for he meant well and he did, after all, clearly state at the beginning of his book: “Listen to your own intuition: trust yourself”. Sadly enough, in that golden age of experts, no one trusted themselves to tackle that task head-on or pay the caveat more than mere passing note in their scrambles to seize whatever key there seemed to be to understanding delinquent offspring.
The new book in reference, NurtureShock, is of interest for a number of reasons, notwithstanding its taking pride of place at the head of a long list of advisory works intended to counsel those who are frankly totally stymied by the daunting task of making any sense what so ever of the challenges that parenthood and child-raising have dropped on their witless heads (and that’s assuming they are sufficiently socially or intellectually qualified to spawn children in the first place, which in my opinion most clearly are NOT). Chief among them is the fact that much of the evidence presented in their book manages to make it uncomfortably clear that the past three decades of leading edge child-rearing philosophies have been about as effectively on target as George W. Bush’s plan for introducing American style democracy to backward Islamic tribal sheikdoms in the Middle East (thanks a heap, Project for a New American Century and other lunatic theorists of that retarded paradigm!).
Among the mass of findings, all carefully based on comparative studies developed to quantify change in the target populations being examined, Bronson and Merryman note unavoidably cogent evidence that most (if not all) the pet politically correct ascendant theories (that have arisen on the part of educators and public policy wonks concerned with addressing educational inequities and learning disparities among the economically disprivileged) have been entirely ineffectual in terms of gains actually achieved.
Highly favored theories advanced in such books as the 1969 block-buster The Psychology of Self Esteem (Dr. Nathanial Brandon), a book that launched the entire, massive self esteem movement in schools, have been shown to be abysmal failures. After decades of attempting to adjust school environments so as to provide personal and institutional learning settings in which kids are made to feel good about themselves, the net result has instead been to reinforce smugly ignorant feelings of entitlement. No group of children so dealt with have shown evidence of raised grades, improved standards of performance, eschewment of anti-social behavioral tendencies, or development of more mature attitudes towards the liabilities of drinking and/or use of harmful substances. In fact, as the authors explain (and not unconvincingly), the constant effort of recent past decades to convince ordinary, unspectacular kids how uniquely special they are has produced an unintended adverse and paradoxical effect: far too many kids of exceptionally unremarkable means (read: ignorant, unmotivated, and possessing few if any special qualities to begin with) now think their slovenly attitudes of careless disregard and flaunted disinterest are legitimised. In other words, ignorance has been actively embraced and unwittingly elevated to having a highly illogical sort of desirable sub-cultural peer status. [QED: the gangsta sub-culture, where ignorance, violence, and rabidly anti-social expressions of behavior are all admired personal qualities.]
Even kids that DO show signs of unique potential worth, intelligence, and future excellence seem to be puzzled by the constant (and usually unwarranted) praise lavished upon them by their parents, educators, and elders…most of whom are clearly anxious in their obsessive, expressive reaffirmations and thus are easily perceived by the subjects of their undeserved adulations as suspiciously insincere (and consequently not to be trusted).
For me, one of the most interesting findings from this book is the fact that all the intensely silly (if well-intended and dreadfully earnest) effort given over to promoting the concepts of cultural diversity as being profoundly enriching are shown to be so far above the target (children’s little heads) that they’re probably in orbit, way above the collective consciousness of Earth children. As the WSJ reviewer points out, the intense effort of several past decades to assure children that they are ‘all equal’, ‘all friends’, and ‘all the same’ amounts to little more—in terms of the practical result there from—than a totally ineffectual and highly pretentious exercise in adult reassurance that the specialist theory promulgators are absolutely correct in their august expectations that these nostrums have been effectively absorbed and constructively embraced by pre-and-post adolescents.
One other finding of marked relevance is the fact that far from getting the concept of shared ‘togetherness’ across in a meaningful manner, the constant ‘on-message’ efforts aimed at older students made by specialist educators and public policy makers appears to have often had exactly the opposite effect: it has increased racial sensitivities that complicate, rather than help adolescents cope with ‘diversity’ effects. The practical impression that seems to have obtained in many is that ‘...more diversity means more divisions between students’. Looked at within the context of those who are perceived as being ‘diverse’, constant harping on past discrimination and social inequities thus actually tends to predispose adolescents towards being hyper-reactive to future perceived slights and instances of possibly demeaning treatment. Holy Paradox, Batman!
In the 1980s, another of the pet bodies of theory among educators and public policy makers was that promotion of what we call ‘social intelligence’ (‘SQ’) would promote ‘pro-social’ values and broadened acceptance of cultural differences. Studies cited in Bronson’s and Merryman’s book tend to suggest differently, that in fact enhanced ‘SQ’ may actually help promote and even enable school bullies to more adequately control, manipulate, and dominate their less confident little peers.
A further darling programmatic tool of the 80s and 90s known as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), originated as a police-inspired community program and once adopted by over 80% of all American school districts, has also been shown to have had virtually no positive long-term effects at all on adolescent behavior (and little if any short-term impact). Following along the same lines, Bronson and Merryman cite compelling evidence that suggests that even all those elaborately developed intelligence canvassing tests used by schools to assess and quantify ‘giftedness’ among school children are shown to be able to accurately predict later academic achievement (based on present IQ) less than half the time (an effectiveness of less than 50%). One of the reasons offered for this (and offered as evidence of the fallibility of tests such as these) is the fact that lying is an ingrained and extremely common dynamic among children of all ages. Given that there’s no effective way to control this tendency (and the fact that there is no absolute way to ensure that test takers will be truthful in answering intensely probing questions), a virtual monkey wrench is thrown into the vital works of these assumptive theories on adolescent behavior, causing horrific damage to all of the neat theoretical predictions and forecast possibilities of the educational policy wonks.
So, given all this extremely discouraging and daunting evidence in the recent Bronson and Merryman book that all those 80s and 90s ‘scientific’ psychosocial theories on child development and the positive structuring of adolescent behavior have proven no more effective than rolling dice to achieve a specified outcome, what does this tell us about the astuteness of complex (and very costly) educational programs being foisted off on the public by high-minded (if intensely wrong-headed) educational theoreticians and policy makers? Having had the personal benefit of not just learning about, but living through, the Spockian Gestalt of the post-war period as a personal walking, talking, behavioral pawn of these folks (in all of their academic permutations), I am inclined to feel some vindication for my previous outspoken and critical contempt for such ineffectual dynamics as the ‘political correctness’ movement, the ‘in diversity is our strength’ sentiment, the ‘we’re all equal’ euphemisms, and the ‘feel good about yourself’ self-esteem efforts that collectively punctuate the past several decades of pseudo-science public education policies.
As I have stated many times before, ‘diversity’ is only a blessing when it is approached with the right spirit, by intelligence and high-minded reflective reason. Given the Heinz-57 IQ status of so many young (and young-minded) Americans today who pride themselves on being rebelliously ignorant, diversity as a unifying concept is doomed at the starting gate.
It does no good at all to delude ourselves that just because we live in a democratic society that this somehow automatically makes us all equal, for we are most definitely not. Individuals vary one from another in far too many ways to even attempt a valid quantification of anything even remotely approaching personal equality. Social classes exist as a hard, cold, and irrefutable fact; they shall persist, despite our best efforts to pretend that we in America live in a classless society in which everyone is neither better nor worse than anyone else. To think otherwise is the gravest of sentimental follies and an intellectual deceit beyond logical comprehension.
Bronson& Merryman have shown us strong evidence that a number of assumptions broadly shared by many less astute Americans are in fact the most abject nonsense. Among them is the disturbing faith America has in the application of science and technology to treat and cure social ills that no set of theorisations yet formulated can eradicate or substantially alter. Their findings also continue to demonstrate that we live in a culture that encourages personal abnegation of intelligent responsibility: that we would rather listen to self-anointed experts do our thinking for us, rather than apply own intelligence. They also underscore the fact (among other things) that what America needs more than entire legions of so-called ‘specialist experts’ is a return to the application of sound common sense and responsibility for our own lives.
Reading all the foregoing paragraphs over, I am reminded yet again of that famous ‘throw-away’ line of the Firesign Theatre group (a stream-of-consciousness performance group, starring Phil Proctor, Peter Bergman, Phil Austin and David Ossman, that was highly influenced by the British Goon Show of the 50s), back in the 70s: Everything you know is wrong…’. Despite all our delusions of being well-informed and well-served by the latest advances in scientific and technological disciplines, the sad truth is that we Americans actually thrive in a self-assumed state of ill-informed superficiality, ever eager to grasp any as-yet unproven theory that comes our way with the emotional fervor of the true-believer. The result is that ignorance more often prevails than reflective intelligence, an unavoidably strong argument indeed that everything we (think we) know is (very likely) wrong.
Fortunately, a small glimmer of iconoclastic hope for the ultimate ascendancy of reason over the powers of ignorance appears to exist in the book review column of my former arch-nemesis, the Wall Street Journal. It certainly adds a bit of cerebral fertiliser to my own tenuous little garden of hopefulness for humanity's longer-term prospects...